Florida Legislators: “Teach Critical Thinking in Science, but Just the Facts, Man in History”

Can you insist on critical thinking in one content area, and then demand that another be taught only as a factual pursuit? Well, that’s what some legislators in the Florida Senate believe.

A bill was introduced on February 27, 2009 into the Florida Senate relating to educational instruction. It is a comprehensive bill that will require the

staff of a public school teach a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution and certain governmental, legal, and civic- related principles (Florida Senate- 2009 SB 2396).

As I described yesterday’s post, the evolution mandate is simply another antievolution ploy to influence the way teacher’s design curriculum in biology in general, and evolution specifically. Some of those who advocate this position claim that they are only protecting the science teacher from being persecuted for “critically analyzing” evolution. No evidence of such persecution has been documented. It is important to note that evolution is the only scientific theory in this bill that needs to be critically analyzed. No mention is made of any other scientific idea. This kind of thinking has permeated science education for many years, but emerged as the alternative approach for the antievolutionists after the court decision Kitzmiller v. Dover ruled that teaching intelligent design in public school biology classes violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. And indeed, the court said in its ruling that “intelligent design is not science, and cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents. So to undermine the teaching of evolution in biology class, the approach is to require the Trojan Horse of critical analysis. For more information on this, please refer to the National Center for Science Education.
But these same legislators will require that
{American} history shall be taught as factual, not as constructed..
Apparently they want history taught as if it is nothing more than factual. Yet, the Ancient Greek word historia means “inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation.” History has a strong interpretive component, and should involve the active investigation of the past, as cited here. For example, the history of science education is not simply a list of facts or events, it is a dynamic story constantly being revisited as a true discourse of the past through the creation of narrative and past events relating to science teaching. The same is true of American history, in general. Yet, the same legislators who advocate critical thinking in science, demand that history be taught as simply factual.
Critical thinking should be a fundamental part of teaching. In my own view, critical thinking involves analysis and reflection focused on deciding an action or perspective to take. Critical thinkers in our classes have learned how to look at natural phenomena aware of their own prior knowledge, and approach the situation with an eye toward understanding and construction of new ideas. Critical thinking: It doesn’t need legislation.

If You Teach Evolution, You May Be Required to Teach It Critically!

Legislators in several states believe that laws need to be passed to ensure that students are engaged in critical thinking activities. However, the legislators have limited their own thinking, and have selected specific scientific theories that should be examined critically, one of course, is evolution. Around the country, this trend is on the move. Here are few examples:

  • June 17, 2008: The Louisiana Science Education Act is signed by Governor Jindal. The act promotes critical thinking skills and objective discussion of scientific theories, but mentions only evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning (which is not a theory).
  • February 10, 2009, Missouri House of Representatives, House Bill No. 656. If passed, beginning in the Fall of 2009, teachers would help students critically analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weakness of biological or chemical evolution whenever they are taught. No mention is made of any other scientific theory that might be subject to critical thinking.
  • February 17, 2009, Florida Senate, Senate Bill 2396. Led by Senator Wise, an act requiring that the instructional staff teach a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution…Senator Wise also has said that he intends to make it a law that science teachers must teach intelligent design.

The Louisiana Science Act, signed by Governor Jindall last year is a good example of the attempt by some to enforce their religious views under the guise of critical thinking. The basic idea is that certain theories in science need to be discussed critically if students are to understand the nature of the ideas surrounding the theory. The problem here is that, the legislators, backed by organizations such as the Discovery Institute, (a creationist, intelligent organization) only want certain theories considered in this discussion. And these theories have had a history of controversy in American science education for nearly 100 years. No mention of gravity. Haven’t heard them mention atomic theory. Nor have I seen the Theory of Plate Tectonics on their list. But we do find:

  • Evolution
  • Origins of Life
  • Global Warming
  • Human Cloning

This latest ploy of suggesting that these ideas need to be analyzed and discussed critically is simply another way for creationists, and intelligent design advocates to enter the realm of science education. The National Center for Science Education keeps a watchful eye on these kinds of events, and has made recent posts regarding the goings on in Florida and Missouri. What is most important in these cases to examine who is proposing these bills. In the Missouri case, the legislators in question were sponsors of filed antievolution bill in the past. They keep proposing the bills, and if they don’t get enacted, they come back a year later, and try again. In the Louisiana case, the Governor did sign anti-evolution legislation, and it is known as the Louisiana Science Education Act. However, the National Center for Science Education dubbed this Act as a creationist bill, stated that the bill will enable educators to pull religious beliefs into topics such as evolution.

It isn’t necessary to legislate thinking. I recently visited and taught a lesson on evolution to about 40 7th graders. The focus of the lesson was Darwin, Fossils and Other Stuff, and you can read about what I did with the students here. Several days after the lesson, I received letters from the students about my visit. There was lots of critical thinking in the minds of the students that I met that day.  Here is what one student wrote:

Dear Dr. Jack,

I really appreciate your coming and teaching us about evolution. Thank you very much for spending your time to come and to see us. Even though I don’t believe in evolution, I’m glad I know more about it to help me witness to my peers. I do pray that maybe one day you will believe in creationism and see all species for the uniqueness God made them to be. Once again I do thank you for your thoughts,


Students are quite able to think critically without passing laws to make it happen.
Students are quite able to think critically without passing laws to make it happen.

Clearly this student was involved in critical thinking as evidenced in his letter. As this student has indicated, he will construct his knowledge of {science} and will try and incorporate it into his own world view. We do not need legislators telling teachers how to teach, or students how to think. Legislators need to get out of the way.  Teachers and students  seem to be able to do teaching & learning quite well, thank you.